Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans: first encounter. It was in 1963 at Beckrag Motors in Irvington, New Jersey, where I’d arrived to buy a bolt-on hardtop for my Sunbeam Alpine. The Le Mans was in their showroom, gleaming red, enticingly shaped, with wire wheels, snug Microcell bucket seats and the walnut dashboard I’d tried to fake with contac-paper on my Alpine. It looked like 100 mph stock-still. The price was $4295, about $3000 more than I could even borrow. I had to stick with my hardtop Alpine.
The Le Mans was your basic English blacksmith’s revenge, cobbled up from a production vehicle, like the Triumph Herald-based Bond Equipe, but rather more impressive. The base car was the Alpine; the builder was Thomas Harrington Ltd. in Hove, Sussex, where they knew a few things about custom conversions.
The Alpine had been designed for the Rootes Group (by Raymond Loewy Associates) in the late Fifties; Harrington shaved its by-then-dated tailfins and deck and applied their own fiberglass fastback, which clamped onto the stock windscreen and ran back to a Kamm-like tail, sandwiched onto the metal body and held down in the rear by a bolt that could have come from the Golden Gate Bridge. They added a hatchback and swing-out rear windows, “Le Mans” lettering, a slim strip of bodyside brightwork ending in an arrow point, and a svelte interior, and built about 250 copies, which wasn’t bad for a closed custom body style selling for almost double the price of a stock Alpine.
In the 1980s I briefly owned a white Harrington, in pretty good shape, too, and wrote a “driveReport” for Dave Brownell’s Special-Interest Autos, now sadly defunct (“Rootes Builds a Faster Fastback,” SIA #76, August 1983). Consumed with enthusiasm, I started a Harrington Register and published two or three editions of a newsletter called the Harrington Harangue. But my Le Mans was a bucket of bolts in need of restoration, other things interfered and I let it go. If it’s still out there, the serial number is #6413.
In the Internet Age, past sins come back to haunt you. Imagine my surprise to hear via this website from Jan Iggbom, a retired Swedish Air Force officer and, since 1969, a Harrington owner (of the only Le Mans sold new in Sweden). Two years ago, with Ian Spencer in the USA, Mr. Iggbom created a web-based Harrington Register which has tracked almost half of the cars built. Jan writes:
The owners who have discovered us have become members in the Harrington Society. It’s not a club, just something which holds the owners together. We thought about writing a book, but a book is some kind of final result, while a website is more alive. I’m updating the site at least a couple of times every month. Ian and I have tried to dig deep in the Harrington story. We have both been in contact with Clive and Justin Harrington many times, and have written articles with them. We have also found a couple of old employees from the factory who have verified some facts for us.
It sounds irreligious, but I’ve never been able to relate to Ferraris, possibly because I could never afford one. Give me a quirky English rig like the Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans, with an interesting past and a shape you don’t see every day. There’s something about the smell of leather and oil, the way the rain beads on the bonnet, that reminds you of the days when almost anybody in England could build a sports car, and most of them did….
In 1961-63, teams of Sunbeams appeared at the great French endurance race for which the Harrington was named. In 1961 a highly-modified Harrington Alpine (reg. no. 3000RW) circulated Le Mans like a clockwork mouse, winning a trophy called the Index of Thermal Efficiency. You can look it up in my book, Tiger Alpine Rapier: Sporting Cars from the Rootes Group.
Thanks and a tip of the hat to Messrs. Iggbom and Spencer for preserving an interesting corner of automotive history.